Bad Faith

Why Hell Is Jean-Paul Sartre 

France loves its intellectuals, and the more argumentative, outrageous and absurd the better – and the archetype of them all was Jean-Paul Sartre. 

When he died in 1980, a crowd of twenty thousand turned up at Jean-Paul Sartre’s funeral.  President Giscard d’Estaing had already been photographed by the deathbed, brooding in a cream-coloured safari-suit. In Montparnasse Cemetery, film stars and politicians jostled with students, radical journalists, independent film-makers, social activists, psychotherapists, folksingers, cafe philosophers, Soviet diplomats and many pale, thin, adoring young girls. 

Sartre’s long-time companion, Simone de Beauvoir put in an appearance. Though she missed the actual interment, she sat in front of the open grave for ten minutes, looking weighty, while the press got their snaps. A photographer from Paris-Match even fell in. Oh, they couldn’t have enjoyed themselves more.

Only in France would this swivel-eyed, totalitarian dwarf have merited a rock star’s funeral. But Sartre wasn’t a rock star, he was a philosopher, called by one newspaper “the secular messiah of existentialism”, his own religion of miserableness.

His childhood was so dingy that he almost could have made it up himself (and considering the inaccuracies in his 1964 autobiography, Les Mots, that wasn’t beyond him). He was brought up in a small apartment in the Paris suburbs by a doting mother, who often dressed him as a little girl, and a domineering grandfather, a pastor who routinely seduced women in his congregation. Sartre’s father died just after his birth, of a lingering disease.

At the age of three, an infection caught by the seaside left him with only ten percent vision in his right eye and a brutal squint that he framed or rather accentuated with thick rimmed glasses. He grew to be 5’2” tall. His teeth were bad (“He was scornful of even the most basic conventions of bourgeois dental hygiene’, says the historian Leland de la Durantaye. ‘”Mossy” is a word that comes easily to mind’). He smoked heavily. He studied to be a teacher but initially failed the qualifying exam, the agrégation. The second time, he was luckier. His new girlfriend, a pinched, serious student from the Sorbonne, Simone de Beauvoir, coached him through the exam. He called her ‘The Beaver’.

From the 1940s onwards, the couple gained a weird hold over French cultural life for nearly half a century becoming a kind of anti-Bogart and Bacall of the rive gauche. They hung out in the fashionably seedy St. Germain-de-Pres quarter, at the Cafe de Deux Magots or the Cafe de Flore, drinking scotch, mocking their rivals and holding court over tables full of adoring youngsters until three or four in the morning, the air blue with cigarette smoke.

Sartre’s secret was existentialism, the philosophy he laid out in l'Étre et le néant (Being and Nothingness, 1943). Life is meaningless, a ‘futile passion’, he said in six hundred and thirty-two pages, and only a few individuals, like him, are intellectually serious enough to reject its falsities. This pessimistic message was champagne for the ears of the post-war French, especially the young (those under forty outnumbering those over in France after 1950). It provided a better, nobler reason to be depressed. Existentialism became France’s first post-war youth fad. Existentialists wore black, they listened to moody jazz, they had tortured affairs, they ironed their hair (girls) or grew stringy beards (boys). To do anything else was “mal foi” (bad faith), the kiss of death for any existentialist. Basically, you did as Sartre did. And why not? He was a war hero, resistance fighter and original thinker.

Or not. Sartre as war hero is pure myth. He served in a meteorological unit, tending a weather balloon. He wasn’t captured, he turned himself in and was interned for a year. Nor was he a leading light of the Resistance like another famous existentialist, Albert Camus, who edited an underground newspaper, Combat, and had to spend the Occupation years lugging his printing press around Paris, one step ahead of the Gestapo. 

“Instead”, said Sartre, “I took up arms in the theatre.” He put on two plays, one of them, Les Mouches (The Flies, 1943), Sartre claimed was a coded attack on the Nazis themselves. It was so heavily coded that it got an admiring review in Das Reich magazine edited in Berlin personally by Goebbels. In August 1944, Sartre did write one blazing attack on the Germans that appeared in Combat but by this time the Americans were already in Paris. “Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir entered the Resistance”, concluded his English biographer, Ronald Hayman, “at the same moment as the Paris police.”

Perhaps none of this really matters. It’s the thought that counts. Then again, the core of Sartre’s philosophy was not original but lifted from less showy German philosophers, including Martin Heidegger. “Sartre’s Being and Nothingness”, wrote critic Jim Holt in The New Yorker, “… is just Heidegger’s Being and Time with some racy passages thrown in about the anus and Italian love-making.” Heidegger gave a lecture suggesting Sartre did not actually understand existentialism. Sartre, who never refused a grudge, responded with a torrent of essays, lectures and articles, claiming it was Heidegger who did not understand existentialism. The spat dragged on for years. 

Sartre’s influence over France’s intellectual life was immense. He expounded – endlessly – his ideas in two huge philosophical works, four novels (including the famous La Nausée (Nausea, 1938 – described by British philosopher AJ Ayer as ‘a title that reviews the book’), seven plays and literally thousands of articles, essays and lectures. He started his own literary magazine to publish them, Les Temps Modernes, and when that turned out not to be big enough to carry his output, he founded Libération, a newspaper that continues today as the mouthpiece of the French left. On average, he wrote twenty pages a day. Quality control was poor since he refused to edit or even read anything once written.

By the mid-50s, Sartre realised that however huge he might be in philosophy, in the real world he was just a short man with a big mouth. It was then he began his career as perennial political activist. At first this began with vocal opposition to France’s war in Algeria, so vocal in fact that at one stage five thousand ex-servicemen marched past his apartment in the rue Bonaparte, chanting ‘mort a Sartre’ (‘death to Sartre’). In 1961, the right-wing terror group O.A.S (Organisation de l'Armee Secrete, Secret Army Organisation) tried to blow him up, twice, and failed. This seemed to show Sartre that he was on the right track and he began espousing causes ever further to the left, like Stalinism.

The fact that the radical individualism of existentialism was illogical beside Marxist totalitarianism seems to have passed him by. When even his fellow leftist, Camus, broke with the Russians after their the invasion of Hungary in 1956, Sartre turned on him: “an anti-Communist is a dog. I don’t change my view on this. I never shall.” Then Stalin died and Russia seemed to go soft so Sartre switched to Maoism just at a time when millions were dying in the Chinese cultural revolution. He went on to defend the massacre of Israeli athletes by Black September terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The political attitudes of an unkempt eccentric (perhaps slightly more than an eccentric; an experiment with mescaline so altered his brain that Sartre laboured under the hallucination for more than a year that he was being chased by a giant lobster) are usually insignificant but thousands of French teachers, journalists, lecturers and artists followed him on his intellectual pilgrimage into the ultra-left. One of them was a young journalist who acted as Sartre’s driver on a jaunt to Germany to protest the imprisonment of the Baader-Meinhof Group. He was Joachim Klein who went on to take part in the attack on an OPEC summit in Vienna in 1975 as part of Carlos the Jackal’s terror gang.

Sartre was not responsible for Klein’s rampage but he was responsible in part for giving intellectual weight to the bombs, murders and kidnappings that rocked the world in the 1970s. “Mistaken ideas always end in bloodshed”, Albert Camus once remarked, “but in every case it is someone else’s blood. That is why some of our thinkers feel free to say anything.” He was thinking of Sartre.

Eventually his star waned. Existentialism went out of fashion, superseded by another French philosophical trend, deconstructionism. Even Sartre’s appeal to young people petered out. During the 1968 events, when the streets of Paris were full of youngsters tearing up paving stones and having punch-ups with the riot police, he cut rather a ridiculous figure, standing outside a car factory and handing out a Maoist newsletter urging the workers to shoot random policemen. At one major rally, as he rose to speak, the organisers handed him a terse note: ‘Keep it short’.

But Simone de Beauvoir stayed with him to the end, almost.  Her intellectual credentials were as prominent as his. Her book, The Second Sex (1949), had become the bible of gender politics and the French writer and philosopher Raymond Aron, in view of her stern demeanour and light moustache, dubbed her “the father of modern feminism”. A more sympathetic author, Angela Carter, asked, "There is one question that every thinking woman in the western world must have asked herself at one time or another. Why is a nice girl like Simone de Beauvoir sucking up to a boring old fart like Jean-Paul Sartre?’ 

The answer is, they were about as nice as each other. Sartre had stopped having sex with her after the war, his decision rather than hers, and they agreed to an open relationship so long as each told the other about their affairs, in crude detail as it turned out from their letters. Sartre went on to have a string of affairs with thin, nervy young women sufficiently intimidated by his intellect to overcome any possible distaste for his physical appearance and habits; de Beauvoir, a bisexual, did much the same. The letters reveal that in later life de Beauvoir would seduce her students and then pass them on to Sartre, consoling them with the information, “he cannot have conventional relations anymore but likes to have someone in bed to talk to about himself.” 

In the last years, Sartre and de Beauvoir’s famous relationship soured but they found themselves locked together by their mutual fame though heartily sick of one another. Sartre determined to cut her off from any access to the burgeoning royalties of his life’s writings. To make a will or to marry one of his girlfriends would have been unthinkably bourgeois. Instead, he adopted one of his girlfriends, the nineteen-year-old Arlette Elkaïm, making her automatically his sole heir when he died in 1980. Not to be outdone, de Beauvoir also adopted a young girl, Sylvie Le Bon, a student aged sixteen, who inherited her estate in 1986. 

Twenty years after their deaths, their literary estates are locked in constant legal battle to prevent the publication of work by one which might possibly have been contributed to by the other. Dearly loving a feud, both Sartre and de Beauvoir would surely have been delighted.


Sartre on fatherhood: “It is not the men who are at fault but the paternal bond which is rotten. There is nothing better than to produce children, but what a sin to have some! The death of Jean-Baptiste [his father] was my greatest piece of good fortune... Had he lived, my father would have laid down on top of me with all his weight, and squashed me.” Les Mots (Words), 1964

Sartre on smoking: Sartre’s cafe regimen was fuelled, according to de Beauvoir’s autobiography, by a daily intake of  between three to four litres of alcohol and coffee, a dozen corydrane tablets, a mixture of amphetamine and aspirin then available over the counter (the recommended dose was two) and  forty Boyard cigarettes. Sartre called smoking "the symbolic equivalent of destructively appropriating the entire world.” Once he tried to give up in typical existential fashion. "In truth”, Sartre wrote, "I did not care so much for the taste of tobacco that I was going to lose, as for the meaning of the act of smoking. [I had to reduce] tobacco to being only itself: a leaf that burns; I cut [its] symbolic links with the world. Suddenly my regret was disarmed and quite bearable”. Bearable – for about a week. Sartre went on to smoke for another 40 years and died of a lung tumour that turned his body gangrenous. British philosopher AJ Ayer commented: “Existentialism really only works on paper.”

Sartre on realising he is alive: “The thing which was waiting was on alert, it pounced on me, it flows through me. I'm filled with it. It's nothing: I am the Thing. Existence, liberated, detached, floods over me. I exist.” La Nausee (Nausea), 1938

Sartre on the natural sciences: “Slime is the agony of water. It presents itself as a phenomenon in the process of becoming; it does not have the permanence within change that water has. . . . Nothing testifies more clearly to its ambiguous character as a ‘substance between two states’ than the slowness with which the slimy melts into itself.”

Sartre on the Nazis: “We were never more free than in the Occupation.” A typical paradox from the old word-twister. Perhaps he wasn’t trying to be paradoxical; under the Nazis, Sartre managed to get two smash hit plays put on and finish off his major philosophical work, Being and Nothingness.

Sartre on other people: “Hell is other people.”

Sartre on Communism: “Freedom of speech is complete in the USSR, and the Soviet citizen is constantly improving his way of life in the midst of a society that is making constant progress.”

Sartre on the Nobel Prize: Sartre’s refusal of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964 was true to his of idea what being an existentialist was all about. As he said in an interview with Canadian TV in 1976: “To have accepted it, would have given me a little badge of distinction, a little symbol of power, which would have separated me, a worker of the mind, from other members of the proletariat”. What he didn’t tell the interviewer and what wasn’t known until after his death is that while Sartre publicly and loudly rejected the prize, he then wrote to the  Swedish Academy asking to have the 53,000 Kroner prize money sent on to him in secret. The Academy’s reply was along the lines of: “Ha ha. No”.

Sartre on the future: “One is still what one is going to cease to be and already what one is going to become. One lives one's death, one dies one's life”.

Sartre on the toilet: “Sartre felt most at home in cafes and restaurants where he could annex space by dominating the conversation and exhaling smoke ... To reassure his mind that it had nothing to fear from sibling rivalry with his maltreated body he constantly ignored all messages (that his body) sent out ... He resented the time he had to spend on washing, shaving, cleaning his teeth, taking a bath, excreting and he would economise by carrying on conversations through the bathroom door.” Ronald Hayman, Sartre: a Biography 1987

Sartre on God: The basis of Sartre’s existentialism is that man must recognise that there is no god. “The absence of God is more divine than God.. He was known as one of the world’s most famous and argumentative atheists. However, near the end of his life, his nerve faltered. He told Pierre Victor: “I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.” His fellow existentialist and long-time companion, Simone de Beauvoir had by this had quite enough of him: "How”, she asked, "should one explain the senile act of a turncoat?”


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